Lost in the City: An Exploration of Edward P. Jones's Short Fiction

Project Conclusion

By Michael Dennis & Misty Falkenstein 

When discussing Black identity, society tends to rely on stereotypes. Conversely, Edward P. Jones explores the multifaceted identities belonging to the Black community. Each of his stories shows a different family and/or community, and reveals how those communities intersect and commingle, creating a map of Black identity in DC. Just as the intersections of streets and neighborhoods make up the geography of DC, the intersecting lives and choices of the literary characters in Jones’s stories make up the identity of “Chocolate City.”

Collective Black identity is not a one-dimensional or linear discussion, but rather an intricate network of people, choices, stories, and systemic influences. In a 2006 NPR interview, when asked about avoiding stereotypes in his writing, Jones responded:

​There are people who do things that aren't very nice to each other. But my thing has always been that no bad person was ever born that way and the thing you have to do is find the moment or moments when that person turned off the good road and went on the bad road. When you can find those moments and tell them as detailed as possible, then maybe, maybe you can avoid the stereotype. 

The nuanced, attentive approach to constructing individual identity apparent in this quote is indicative of the way in which Jones sets about mapping out the identity of Black communities in DC. Jones’s short fiction collections focus on the characters’ lives and their connection to the collective past, as well as the precise locations where these lives take place. Unlike southern towns, developers planned DC in a grid pattern, with lettered streets running west to east and numbered streets running north to south. The grid pattern, indicative of planned Eastern cities, allows characters to move freely around the city, always finding their way back home easily. 

Even with their high mobility throughout DC, Jones’s characters return to specific locations, even when they travel outside of DC. The gridded streets unify homes and businesses throughout history, both in Jones’s literary setting as well as real-life DC, and provide a comfort through their static position, even as the family or business in that space may change. 9th and P Streets NW may be a beauty shop or a liquor store, depending on the decade, but the exact physical address unifies the stories, no matter when the story takes place. 

In recent years, gentrification has led to various shifts in DC’s population. (Read Forbes article about Ari Theresa.) Therefore, any discussion of a collective Black identity in the nation’s capital must begin with an acknowledgment that social factors like gentrification or migration are not just acting on a single, monolithic ideal. Rather, they are interrupting and rerouting a complex communal/geographical system, which involves real people with real stories; stories like those told by Jones.

Jones’s stories draw the reader into the lives of every-day residents of DC. Although the struggles and triumphs of Jones’s characters are not unique to his writing, binding the characters’ identities across time to the geographic location is. Readers easily dismiss stories as pure fiction when they have never been to a no-name farm somewhere in an unspecified Southern state or a rural homestead far away from the nearest city. However, Jones forces the reader to acknowledge M Street and New Jersey Avenue because of their specific treatment, thus forcing the reader to acknowledge the reality of the lives connected to those locations. While Jones’s stories may be fictional, the precise geography ties the reader to the characters’ lives as well as the stories of the living residence of the real-life DC.

When read together, Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children paint a diverse picture of how the individuals in Washington, DC work and live together to form a unified, albeit multifaceted, Black identity. Jones’s fictional community reveals the reality of DC: that the gentrification of the district happens to the people, not just the buildings. As the district “improves” neighborhood buildings, they relocate, break apart, and scatter parts of the community that live and work as a family, regardless of their genetic relationship. Jones’s literary identity, contrasted with the real-life, severed communities, reveals the true repercussions of the intersections in the lives of urban developers, politicians, and the ignored people who live there. Although Jones’s focus on specific geography is unique to African American short story writing—and unique to American short story fiction in general—his stories illustrate how specific locations bind people together and disruption of those places fractures that connection and the identity formed within it.

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